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Horse racing's Doug O'Neill drops challenge to suspension

Veteran trainer says he is abandoning his legal fight against the California Horse Racing Board, which suspended him after a horse tested positive for excessive levels of carbon dioxide.

July 09, 2012|Bill Dwyre
  • Trainer Doug O'Neill with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another.
Trainer Doug O'Neill with Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I'll… (Al Bello / Getty Images )

Horse trainer Doug O'Neill said Monday that he will abandon his legal fight against the California Horse Racing Board and begin serving a 40-day suspension Aug. 19.

"There comes a time in a fight when it is no longer worth it to keep going," O'Neill said. "I want to put this behind me, take a step back, do something positive during the downtime."

The suspension of O'Neill caused ripples nationwide in racing because of the prominence of the 44-year-old thoroughbred handler, and because of its timing.

When the board announced May 24 that O'Neill would be suspended for 45 days, effective July 1, for violations involving excessive levels of carbon dioxide in a horse named Argenta that ran at Del Mar in 2010, O'Neill had already guided I'll Have Another to victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

Any trainer who wins the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness is immediately cast into a huge public spotlight, and when O'Neill began preparing I'll Have Another for a try at completing the historic Triple Crown — not achieved since 1978 — the spotlight and controversy only increased with the announcement of his suspension.

In a final twist, O'Neill discovered a tendon injury in I'll Have Another on the morning before the Belmont and withdrew the horse and ended the quest for a Triple Crown.

O'Neill has continued to train past the July 1 deadline, as his lawyers negotiated with those of the board. O'Neill has said that his legal fees had reached $300,000.

The agreement cut O'Neill's suspension by five days and allows O'Neill to begin training again in California on Sept. 27, at the start of Santa Anita's Fall Meeting that will be highlighted by the Nov. 2-3 Breeders' Cup.

The agreement did not include any admission of guilt from O'Neill.

"I don't agree with what the board did," he said, "but at the end of the day, life is not always fair. It was time for me to just man up and go forward."

The board's ruling on the excessive levels of carbon dioxide, called milkshaking, went out of its way to say that there was no evidence of O'Neill's involvement in the case, nor evidence of any betting irregularities that would be cause for suspicion.

But the racing board suspended O'Neill based on a no-tolerance rule that says a trainer is responsible for any chemical irregularities discovered in a horse. Argenta's levels exceeded the rules, O'Neill was the trainer of record, therefore he was guilty.

With a few exceptions, nearly every trainer of any seniority in horse racing has had violations listed against them, most of them minor. There are four levels of doping violations measured by the board, with a 1 being the worst. O'Neill's was a category 3.

A trainer in the midst of a Triple Crown run had never faced anything quite like this, and thoroughbred racing took a big hit just at the time when the sport sought, and usually gets, a big boost during a Triple Crown effort.

O'Neill, who impressed the national media throughout by remaining accessible and never ducking questions about the suspension, has 80 horses in his barn, 20 of them owned by J. Paul Reddam, former owner of I'll Have Another. They will be handled during his suspension by his assistants, mainly Leandro Mora.

O'Neill plans to spend some of his suspension time volunteering at area horse retirement farms.

"I'll clean some stalls, help with those who need to be re-broke, help with the training," he said. "I'm also going to work on being a better communicator."

He said he has perhaps 120 investors in those 80 horses, and although owners such as Reddam get his daily attention, he needs to find better ways to keep all the others in the loop too.

O'Neill said Saturday's ceremonies at Betfair Hollywood Park, where I'll Have Another made a final parade and young jockey Mario Gutierrez signed autographs, gave him a new feel for his sport.

"People were lined up and excited to get Mario's autograph," he said. "They seemed in awe of him and what he had done. But once they got his autograph, they left. They just didn't have the feel for the betting scene."

O'Neill said his suspension would give him time to reflect about the industry.

"Our sport is not dead," he said. "It just needs some tweaking."

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